Friday, May 22, 2009


Fun with Cognitive Dissonance

Both of these stories make sense on their own terms. But taken together, they neatly capture the basic dilemma in my world.

I've mentioned before that I don't live or work in California, and right now, I'm feeling pretty good about that. The state budget there has tipped from 'tragedy' to 'farce,' with devastating consequences for public higher ed. From what I can tell as a non-native, it looks like a pair of structural flaws in state government -- two-thirds majorities needed for budgets, and a non-system of government-by-referendum -- have collided with the Great Recession to force a crisis. Since cc funding there doesn't apparently include local tax support, and the colleges themselves can't raise tuition individually, the only path left open to them is to reduce capacity to what the voters are apparently willing to pay for.

Yet at the exact same time, there's a crying need -- and a political push -- for an educated workforce, and cc's are often the lowest-cost and most accessible avenues to create that.

I see this in my own state. We don't export oil, and the old manufacturing base isn't coming back. If there's going to be a sustainable middle class in the future, it will have to have skills. But the very places adults can go to get those skills are taking nasty cuts.

The disjuncture between national policy and state control leads to some very weird outcomes on the ground. In many states, 'stimulus' funding is being consumed almost entirely by existing deficits, since states aren't allowed to run deficits. (Some do, but they aren't supposed to.) When the Feds are pushing the accelerator while the states are slamming on the brakes, it shouldn't be surprising that we're experiencing some jarring fits and starts. There's a really basic structural flaw here, and California just happens to be highlighting it.

Why don't we have a national system for higher ed?

In a way, local or state reluctance to invest in higher ed makes a certain degree of sense. Young, newly-educated people have a way of leaving. At the national level, that's a good thing; we want the talent to go where the opportunities are. But locally, explaining to the folks who aren't going anywhere why they should subsidize other people getting the hell out of Dodge can be a tough sell. ("Let's face it -- this place is a real shithole!" You don't hear too many campaign speeches saying that.) Why, say, Buffalo should prepare its best and brightest to get out of Buffalo is a real question.

But the "we don't capture the gains" objection largely fades away at the Federal level. Most of the new grads who leave the state of their alma mater -- itself a minority -- don't leave the country. On a national level, we do capture the gains.

In a way, we're backing into a Federal system. As the percentage of public higher ed budgets covered by state support has decreased, most of the costs have shifted to students. Since so much of student financial aid is Federal, we're effectively replacing state money with Federal. But we're doing it in a context in which states set the ground rules. A Keynesian burst at the Federal level gets neutered on the ground by state-level deficit hawks. (I don't know if it's possible to neuter a burst, or if hawks know how to neuter anything, but bear with me.) Nationalizing the system would allow the rules to match the emerging logic of the system. And it wouldn't be 'socializing,' since these are public institutions already. It would just relocate them to a level of government that can actually handle them.

So, wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should we move public higher ed to a national system?

I understand your argument, but I've never heard anyone say "Yipee! The Feds are here to help!"

Personally, I've lost faith in both of the major political parties to manage anything more than a scandal.
Yes- just like Europe!

And *then* where will people go for their higher ed needs, if the US system becomes just as dysfunctional, elitist, and rationed as everyone else?

China is ramping up higher ed I hear . . .
Oh Buffalo, poor, poor Buffalo. But if ever there were a place to escape from ...
"I've never heard anyone say "Yipee! The Feds are here to help!" "

Except in Illinois, the only state in the Union where "Springfield" is a dirtier word than "Washington" ...

At least the feds give us some return on their monetary waste. Our state government (historically) just steals it and funnels it into graft and fraud. :P
DD, there may be some good arguments for more Federal involvement in CC education, but the fact that grads don't want to live where you work doesn't seem like one of them. At my CC, virtually no students intend to leave the state (WA) and want to find a local job or transfer to a local state 4-yr college.

It is an unhappy truth that young folks are fleeing the Rust Belt, but the answer is to figure out how to get more good jobs there, as opposed to coordinating some nationwide education policy.

A reasonable compromise would be a statewide CC system, so at least Buffalo would get similar funding to New Paltz, despite the fact that nobody wants to live in Buffalo.
Is it the Chinese central government that's ramping up, or is it out in the provinces?

I am delighting in the idea of us having to avoid centralized planning and socialistic tendencies, or else the Chinese Communist Party will do better than us.
I am in California and all of the referendums drive me crazy. I mean, what is a democratic republic *for* if not to allow our elected leaders to make some freakin' decisions about spending and budgets, intead of letting the uninformed populace do it. I mean, I know I'm sounding a bit like Matthew Arnold here, but puh-lease.
I am delighting in the idea of us having to avoid centralized planning and socialistic tendencies, or else the Chinese Communist Party will do better than us.I am always amused at how many Americans use China as an example of centralization and socialism, given that the central government has trouble enforcing its policies in the provinces, and the US federal government gets a far greater share of the GDP than all levels of China's governments get…
For the record there's a lot to love about Buffalo, I live there. But it's not for the job market!! I regularly tell my students they need to live the area to get jobs (especially in media and public relations) and they just look at me. There's constant talk of a brain drain with the youngins leaving, but there's also a lot moving back. But the newspaper help wanted section? Went from 6 back and front pages to 2.

Anyway, my concern with national education is national control over that education. Will our academic freedoms be limited? Will the government try to standardize higher education the way they have so poorly for secondary and elem edu? Will this lead to no child left behind for college? I'm just concerned. NPR did a piece (talk of the nation, back in April??) about standardization of higher ed, so your degree from Buffalo would be the same (courses, material, etc) as your degree from say Seattle. Any thoughts on this?
U should add, as I didn't in my comment above, there's actually a movement of people coming BACK to Buffalo. So again, it's not that no one wants to live here: housing prices are great for example, it's just that it's hard to when you're taxed to death with no job prospects. Fixing education might not be the answer for this city so much as fixing many other things.
Heh, got it -- the Chinese Communist Party is in fact decentralized and an example of small government libertarianism. That does resolve the cognitive dissonance.
Moe to the actual point: Why is hte rest of the world "zigging" (toward more liberty, and away from central planning) while here in the USA we are "zagging?"

In London they just erected a statue of Ronald Reagan . . .

(oh ok for the easily confused; China has been implementing a buttload of "market based reforms" recently; they call it "Communism with a Human Face." The head honchos realized that they needed a certain amount of economic liberty [capitalism] in order to pay for all the wonderful Communism they were enjoying. And tehy were getting a little concerned that Communism wasn't able to feed a billion people; they needed Capitalism just to keep the country from going into full blown revolt. Will the communist rulers be able to dance along that razor blade between economic liberty and political repression? Well, they believe they can duplicate the European model of "Just Enough Capitalism to Pay the Bills." only time will tell.)
Side Remark: Apropos what constitutes a "centralized" government, I have been reading the book "Illiberal Democracy" by Fareed Zakaria (written before the 2nd Gulf War, which makes it particularly interesting, based on a 1997 article in "Foreign Affairs" that is available on the web) as a hand-me-down from my Dad. You can have a 'liberal' (old definition) dictatorship and an illiberal democracy (a democracy without individual rights). One could argue that this is where Bush/Cheney were headed, and use it to compare/contrast China and California.

One could look at this question with case studies. Where did the large state investment in higher ed get California (without question the highest level of investment back when they had no tuition)? It still imported a lot of talent, but much of its bigger industries were home grown.

How about states like Michigan and Ohio? One might say it didn't pay off for them, but maybe they would be worse off without their higher ed system. It's not a surprise that immigrant states, like Florida, are cheapskates - and that might be why California is headed that way. But they get in trouble when businesses realize the schools their kids go to are not very good.

But I can't leave without questioning the premise. There is a massive amount of Federal money put into higher ed. From research dollars (arguably the majority of the budget at a top R1) to Pell grants, most colleges would close their doors if Federal funding (in all of its forms) went to zero.
The situation in California is complicated by a set of no lose districts (and thus a lack of moderates in our legislature) and a screwed up taxation system.

The propositions don't help but neither does the most prevalent attitude in our citizens - that I should get more from the state and pay fewer taxes every year. Thank you Ronald Regan. We also tend to like to elect movie stars as governor to the general detriment of all.

I work with a particularly starved bit of our state government that is so weak and pathetic it is almost entirely ineffective and yet in its moribund thrashing about it still manages to make my life incredibly difficult. It's almost enough to make me turn Libertarian.

That said the only thing I can imagine that would make things worse here is if we had federal interference. What's happening right now is a perfect example of the adage that the IQ of a group goes down each time you add a member. Cram 40 million of us together and come watch the circus.

What we need is: a 60% rule for the budget and new taxes (rather than 2/3), redistricting, tax reform or at the very least an exemption from prop 13 for commercial property, and a total overhaul of the proposition system. The first two are in the works – on the last two, I’m not holding my breath.
I have no idea why anyone who is opposed to state intervention to "promote the general welfare" would hang out at a blog devoted to the issues associated with a Community College system.

Probably the same sort of person who thinks there's a "liberty" knob (ours goes to 11), and all policy disagreements are between the "pro-liberty" people and the sadists who get off on controlling others for the sake of doing so.
Well, as there really is no constitutional justification for a federal department of education, and there is a tenth amendment that clearly puts that responsibility on the states, the choice is clear. Eliminate all federal educational funding and bureaucracy, and return that money to the people, so that it can be spent as needed at the local level.
I think my political opponents should run on repealing the Federal Student Loan program.

I am not saying this out of concern for my political opponents' futures; I am saying it because I want to win every election forever from now on.
It's a reasonable question, and one of a wide variety of arenas where the state-centered federalism of the U.S. looks, well, as antiquated as the Constitution that instituted it.

It seems to me dubious that the present system would do a good job of treating higher ed as a national concern--the concern somebody raised about a No-School-Left-Standingization of higher ed seems legitimate--but this issue should be an important part of a broader push for meaningful systemic reform.

And meaningful systemic reform would involve acknowledging that a bunch of reserve domains for the states--an increase in one variety of 'liberty,' if you believe that state governments are *truly* more responsive to their citizens than are national governments (for evidence contrary to that particular belief, one need only drive alongside any one of the thousands of state-regulated waterways befouled by industrial pollution)--actually impede 'liberty' at the federal level. Among about a hundred other (academic) texts on the topic, Robert Dahl's How Democratic Is the American Constitution? makes the point fairly well.

And my point is only that a functional community college system might best be made possible through the pursuit of a stronger federal system. (For those, incidentally, worried that U.S. academic jobs would then be more like those in W. Europe, let's keep in mind that large state institutions often receive less than 20% of their funding from the state; and community college positions are already very much like those in European universities, which are similarly but more centrally [and hence somewhat better and more equitably] funded.)
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I realized this weekend that I didn't give a very good pointer to Zakaria's book in my earlier comment. The title is "The Future of Freedom". The content is about the rise of repressive democracies and the temporary value (on the road to democracy with freedom) of non-democratic systems that provide liberty in commerce and expression.

I don't see any conflict between those views and the concerns Punditus Maximums raises with a false dichotomy. Particularly in these times, the question of WHICH state should pay for higher ed is a valid one. Are you better off getting all of the funding from the Federal Government, where funding per student might not match up with the local cost of living? Are you better off getting it from the State, where the money you get might be controlled by voters hundreds of miles away who want a tax cut? Or are you better off if it comes from a local millage, where a valued local college would get its money from the people who benefit the most from the college? Or are you better off in the hybrid system we use, where overhead expenses often grow just to keep the books straight for each little program that pays for some part of the cost?
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